Groups to Appeal Mining Expansion Near Pennsylvania Park
Nov. 28Environmental organizations opposed to mining near McConnell's Mill State Park plan to appeal a state decision to allow expansion of the mining.
The decision follows action by the state Department of Environmental Protection to allow Quality Aggregates Inc. to blast and quarry to within 500 feet of the park border.
Under the terms of an existing permit, the company has been operating no closer than 1,000 feet from the park.
"We are very upset with DEP and believe officials were hasty in making their ruling," said Doniele Andrus, president of the Friends of McConnell's Mill.
"The geology is unstable, and one bad blast could bring rocks down into the gorge, endanger rock climbers and hurt bird nesting areas," she said.
Pointing to the company's safety record over the past two years, a Quality Aggregates executive said those fears were unfounded.
"We've been operating a little over two years with no incidents," said Jeffrey Ankrom, vice president for environmental operations. "We realize the sensitivity of being close to the park and have taken measures to assure no disruption to the area."
Those measures include monitoring for vibrations, noise and dust during quarrying and blasting.
The company is limited to a single explosion each weekday morning in the Myers Mine area near the park. That restriction will remain in place as the operation expands.
Quality Aggregates is based on Neville Island.
McConnell's Mill State Park stretches for about six miles along Slippery Rock Creek in Slippery Rock Township, Lawrence County. For much of that distance, the creek has cut a narrow, boulder-strewn gorge that is popular with hikers, climbers, anglers and kayakers.
The 2,546-acre park is home to old-growth forest and rare plants, and the Audubon Society has listed it as an "important birding area."
The park is named for a 19th century rolling mill that still stands on the banks of the creek, just north of a covered bridge built in 1874.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources operates the park as part of the Moraine complex, which includes nearby Moraine State Park.
Chuck McQuaid is park manager for McConnell's Mill and assistant manager of the Moraine complex. He said he has heard no complaints or problems linked to blasting at the Myers Mine.
"We have concerns about what effects there may be when the blasting gets closer," he said. "We also worry about the cumulative, long-term effects of blast vibrations. But we have to trust what our sister agency is telling us," he said, referring to the DEP.
Bruce Hazen, president of Slippery Rock Streamkeepers, said he was skeptical of claims that blast vibrations were not being felt within the park. "I live about a mile and a half away from another mining site, and I have felt the vibrations from blasting there," he said.
"Even with all the protections that have been required, strip mining and quarrying are not compatible with natural areas as sensitive as McConnell's Mill," he said.
He pointed to the danger of runoffs into Slippery Rock Creek from sedimentation ponds and the increased risk to climbers should boulders be dislodged or rock walls weakened by effects of the blasts.
"We've flown over the site in an airplane and taken photographs," he said. "The effects may not be visible to park visitors, but you can see in the photos that you've got mud and deep mining pits and equipment right adjacent to the mill."
Hazen proposed a poll of park users to gauge their feelings on the mine project.
Quarry opponents previously appealed the original permit granted to Quality Aggregates. That dispute has been heard by the Environmental Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial agency that rules on DEP appeals. Its decision could come down as early as next month.
The state agency should have waited until that appeal was resolved before approving expansion plans, Andrus said.
Quality Aggregates already had a permit to quarry the entire site, a spokeswoman for the DEP said. The new permit simply allows an expansion of the area where blasting will be permitted.
The permit was granted following a review last summer that sought public comment and considered two years' of experience with quarrying near the park, according to Lori Odenthal, chief of technical services in the DEP's Knox district mining office.
"The appeal process doesn't stop anything," she said. "The company had a permit to mine."
Quality Aggregates estimates that it ultimately could remove about 9 million tons of limestone from the Myers quarry. Extraction would continue for at least the next eight years.
The site had been mined previously for coal, Ankrom said.
Work on the second phase of the quarry project could begin as early as next week with construction of a sedimentation pond. The next stage would involve removing topsoil and hauling it to a storage area. That soil will be replaced after the limestone is removed.
Blasting closer to the park will not begin until 2005.
Demand for limestone and the company's ability to break it into various sizes both slow down in the winter, Ankrom said.
Limestone, ground into rock, gravel or powder, is used to make products ranging from paving slabs to macadam to concrete blocks. It also is used to stabilize roadbeds and stream banks.
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© 2004, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.